For those who dream, Cornell is your place, says Farid Ferdows ’21

Farid Ferdows ’21 says that from his first day on campus, Cornell welcomed him. As a 35-year-old first-year student and a U.S. Army veteran who served as an interpreter in Afghanistan for more than a decade, Farid was not expecting to do well at Cornell. He was worried about fitting in with peers who were half his age, his “less than stellar” academic preparation under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and his ability to succeed at an Ivy League institution.

“Honestly, looking at myself and seeing an Afghan high school student who was practically illiterate when he graduated, I would not be my first, second, or even tenth pick for admission here,” Farid says. “For Cornell to take that chance on me—that speaks volumes about the ethos that Cornell lives by.”

Before he started, Farid admits that he had about 50 percent confidence that he would make it through his first semester. He did not anticipate the robust support system that he discovered at Cornell. Farid found kinship with the veteran students that he met through Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association (CUVA). “We have a small community comprised of students who have performed former military service,” he says, adding, “some members are my age. CUVA was a great place for me to connect with fellow vets.”

group of people
Farid (back row, second from right) with newly admitted veterans at a Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association meet and greet event in fall 2019.

Farid received ongoing academic support in writing, tutoring, and study skills through the John S. Knight Writing Institute, the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives (OADI), and many other university programs. “I needed support to handle the writing-centric curriculum and the writing centers were immensely helpful to me,” he explains. “The OADI Center, where first-gen students get assistance, helped me with arranging my day properly so I could fulfill all my obligations,” he says.

He was mentored by expert faculty and awed by the “sheer intelligence” of Cornell students. “I was intimidated by my fellow students and by the fear that they would be competitive,” Farid says, “but to my surprise, I found Cornell to be the most welcoming place. I didn’t feel that I didn’t fit in—in fact, I fit in from every angle. After the first semester, I realized I wasn’t going to fail, I was going to excel here.”

Faith in education

Farid was born during the height of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the eldest of six children. His parents grew up in the countryside near the city of Kabul, in the province of Logar. They moved to Kabul, where his father found an entry-level position in the Ministry of Martyrs & Disabled Affairs, an arm of the Afghan government which provides services to victims of war and, according to Farid, is similar to the U.S. Veterans Benefits Administration. Farid says his family was relatively comfortable and that Kabul was “peaceful and prosperous at that time.”

mom and dad with three children
Farid (in blue) with his family in 1988

When Farid was in fourth grade, everything changed. The collapse of the Soviet-backed government led to civil war. The wealthy fled the country and families like Farid’s, who did not have the means to leave, fled the fighting—losing their jobs and their homes.

Farid’s family returned to the small parcel of land they owned in Logar, where they grew what crops they could to sustain themselves. His father worked doing manual labor and Farid and his brothers helped in the fields, growing wheat, corn, and potatoes. “These were and are the staples for virtually all Afghans,” Farid explains. “Those left behind [who couldn’t afford to leave Afghanistan] were poverty stricken. We lived on basics—potatoes, flour, corn, and cooking oil—and that’s what people still live on,” he says.

Farid’s and many Afghan families viewed education as the only means of upward social mobility for their sons (daughters, for the most part, did not attend school at that time). Farid and his brother Shabir Ferdows ’13 missed one year of school at the start of the war, but they resumed their education at a regional school located two-hours’ walking distance from their home.

The pair walked or biked both ways during the warm months of the year, to attend mostly open-air classes with a small group of other students who also traveled long distances. “It really wasn’t school in the conventional sense,” Farid recalls. “There were no classrooms, so we sat under a tree. When the leaves fell, we were sent home for the season.”

The force behind him

When the Taliban took control of the government in 1996, the civil war ended and Farid’s family moved back to Kabul so his father could seek employment. After unsuccessful attempts to launch a household items resale business and a firewood business, the family’s savings were exhausted. Farid’s uncle, Mirza Gul Yawar, a professor of psychology and English at Kabul University, stepped in to help. “The quality of schools evaporated under the Taliban,” Farid says. “The emphasis was on religious subjects, and most of traditional teachers, who were women, were forced to go home.”

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that my family was right. If it weren’t for their focus on education, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

—Farid Ferdows '21

Mirza Gul began offering classes for the children of local shopkeepers, to fill in the gaps in their education. “Most Afghan families believed in the value of education, and the shopkeepers were happy to send their kids to my uncle,” Farid explains. The project started out with five or six students in 1996, and quickly grew to more than fifty students by 1997. Farid’s father joined his uncle as a teacher in multiple subjects, and Farid helped out as a tutor. “The school was a great opportunity for my father and for me,” Farid says.

Farid (center) with his family in 2002

Farid believes that his uncle was a driving force in his life. “My uncle made me his main focus, with the goal to make sure I was proficient in English.” Mirza Gul coached Farid one-on-one over the next two years and arranged for him to attend private English lessons for more advanced students as his skills progressed. “I took virtually all the English classes that were offered,” Farid recalls.

The family was hoping that Farid would go to college and study medicine, but, although his exam scores qualified him to choose this path, his life soon took a different direction.

Hope arrives in uniforms

When he graduated from high school in December 2000, Farid says that the unemployment rate in Afghanistan was around 70 to 80 percent. “From 1996-2000, the Taliban was isolated from the rest of the world in every sense,” he says, adding, “This took a toll on ordinary Afghans.” He describes the poverty as “unbearable,” and says that his own aspirations suffered as a result.

Farid decided to take a gap year before attending college, and then 9/11 happened. “It was clear that the attacks originated in Afghanistan,” Farid says. Instead of being terrified of the U.S. invasion they knew would follow, he explains that he and his fellow citizens were hopeful. “They saw international involvement in the country as a chance to escape the absolute poverty and devastation the Taliban had caused,” Farid says.

He recalls the exact date that the official U.S. invasion began—October 7, 2001. “I have never seen people so happy as on that day,” Farid says. “That was 20 years ago, and it was a life-changing moment for me and for everyone.” As coalition troops arrived from around the world, Farid says that they “were not there to harass us, but rather to help the Afghan people.”

Farid was fortunate to speak two Afghan languages, Dari and Pashto, along with English. He interviewed and was soon hired to serve as an interpreter for the coalition troops. “I was lucky that my English classes really paid off!” Farid says. His first assignment was helping a British unit conduct an inventory of humanitarian aid organizations operating in the country, with the goal of eliminating redundancy. For his translation services, Farid was paid $550 per month, which he describes as a “huge amount” at that time—enough to raise his entire family’s standard of living within a few months.

A second family

Farid’s second assignment was for a U.S. Army Reserve unit from Webster, NY, led by Chief Warrant Officer Tim Mueller. He says that the U.S. unit treated him as part of their family and as a valued member of their team. “From Day 1, Tim adopted me as his son,” Farid says. A few of the Americans in his unit were the same age as Farid, and they invited him to play video games and watch TV—a luxury that Farid hadn’t enjoyed for nearly a decade. When asked to remain on base 24/7 to provide translator services, he gladly accepted.

soldiers talking to people
Farid translating for a school reconstruction team in Gardez, Afghanistan in 2003

He loved the work his unit was assigned to: surveying infrastructure in need of reconstruction, such as schools, clinics, and dams. “We had a huge focus on schools,” Farid says. “We went to the same sort of schools that I had attended, that now lay in ruins. We had the opportunity to rebuild 37 of them.” His job was so fulfilling that Farid believes he would have worked for free.

The mentorship of the U.S. military had an immense impact on my educational aspirations.

—Farid Ferdows '21

His salary helped support his family and Farid gained self-confidence and a sense of identity. “I come from a place where the opinions of young people aren’t valued, but they [his U.S. Army team] treated me with so much respect,” he says.

Tim Mueller encouraged Farid to pursue his education in the U.S. When Farid’s first attempt to pass the TOEFL (test of English as a foreign language) was unsuccessful, Tim’s wife Marti sent TOEFL prep books to help Farid prepare. “Tim sat down with me every night for six months [May to October 2002],” Farid says. “I studied and I passed, and my grades were good enough to be admitted to Monroe Community College near Tim’s house in Rochester, NY.”

Unfortunately, Farid’s first visa application was denied due to lack of means of financial support, but Tim was undaunted and vowed to help Farid try again. “He told me he would get me to the U.S., one way or another,” Farid recalls.

Tim returned home in late 2002, but was redeployed to Kabul in 2004. He helped Farid reinitiate the visa process in October 2004, promising to provide full financial support for Farid for the duration of his studies in the U.S. Farid’s second application was approved and he moved to Rochester on December 18, 2004, to begin his studies at Monroe Community College (MCC). “He was virtually like my father,” Farid says. To honor Tim and his wife Marti, Farid took on their surname—Farid Mueller Ferdows.

Finding his footing

Farid explains that his high school education in Afghanistan did not prepare him for academic success at the college level in the U.S. When he entered MCC, he had to start from the beginning, to build his basic math and academic writing skills. Thanks to the generosity of the Mueller family, Farid’s brother Shabir followed the same path a few years later—obtaining a visa and living with the Mueller family during his studies at MCC.

“We started out illiterate,” Farid says. “We both attended MCC, where we took a non-credit math class [TRS-092] to teach us basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.” Farid credits MCC’s outstanding advisors and academic support system for helping him graduate in May 2007 with a 3.74 GPA. “For the sake of comparison, in high school I was ranked 24 out of 28 or 29 students,” Farid says, adding, “I didn’t really care what I was learning and I thought it wasn’t going to matter because of the absolute hopelessness that surrounded me.”

Inspired by his sponsor and second father, Tim, Farid decided to join the U.S. Army Reserves after he graduated from MCC. “Tim was still in the Army, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” he says.

In 2006, Congress had enacted a law enabling Afghan interpreters to be granted permanent residency through the Special Immigrant Visa program. “My visa essentially became a green card that allowed me to pursue employment and join the Army,” Farid says. He notes that Representative Steve Israel, who would later be one of Farid’s professors at Cornell, was one of the members of Congress who supported the new law.

Farid was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 and spent the next eight years supporting U.S. activities there. “I loved all six of my deployments with the Army Reserves,” he says. He is especially proud of his service as personal interpreter to U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven. Farid assisted McRaven in his interactions with senior-level Afghan government officials, providing translation services and cultural insights to the admiral. He earned a Bronze Star medal for this service in 2009.

Hitting his stride

In late 2016, at the age of 34, Farid decided the time had come for him to complete his formal education and pursue a degree in political science—a topic he had become passionate about during his years of military service. After graduating from MCC, his brother Shabir had applied to and been admitted to Cornell. He completed his undergraduate education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in December 2013. “Shabir spoke so highly of Cornell in every sense, from the robust academic curriculum to the generous financial assistance he received,” Farid recalls. “My brother basically told me not to apply anywhere else.”

Farid scanned the course registers back to 2010, and was excited by the breadth of political science courses Cornell offered. He applied to the College of Arts and Sciences and was admitted in 2017. He deferred his acceptance for a year to finish his work with the Army in Afghanistan, and started at Cornell in fall 2018.

Farid double majored in Near Eastern Studies and Government. He says his professors were incredible, with nearly every one of them renowned worldwide as an expert in their field. By his second semester at Cornell, Farid had a 4.1 GPA, and he graduated in May 2021 with a cumulative 3.993 GPA. “This is not a testament to my hard work,” he says. “It was the environment and the support from my professors that made this possible.”

Farid is grateful for the financial support he received through the GI Bill, as well as for the encouragement he received from individuals like Tim. “The mentorship of the U.S. military had an immense impact on my educational aspirations,” Farid says.

He is also immensely grateful to Cornell for the financial assistance the university provided to fill the gaps and essentially cover all of Farid’s expenses. “Because of Cornell’s generosity, I never worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it,” he says.

“Even in my first semester I loved the superb faculty and classes. From Day 1, I felt at home. I couldn’t have found a more accommodating environment.”

—Farid Ferdows ’21

Farid is taking time this year to prepare for the LSAT exam, hoping to do well enough to attend law school. He aspires to study human rights law and work for an international organization like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. “I hope to work on issues of human rights in Afghanistan,” he says. “What I witnessed growing up has made me want to do what I can to make a difference.”

Bringing the family home

Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was announced and implemented a few months ago, Farid has worked tirelessly with individuals like Steve Israel, William McRaven, and several New York elected officials to secure the evacuation of his mother, father, and sister from Kabul. Thanks to the help of many, many people, Farid’s family arrived safely in the U.S. via the UAE in the first week of September 2021.

They are hoping to relocate to Ithaca to join Farid and his youngest brother, Shafi, in a few weeks. “The two weeks from the fall of Kabul till I got them out were the hardest weeks of my life,” Farid says. He is looking forward to bringing them home, to Ithaca, where he has found a welcoming community.

Farid’s gratitude for Cornell is “beyond words” and ongoing. He thanks Robert Hutchens, a professor of economics in the ILR School, who is currently helping his brother Shafi prepare for the GED exam. He also thanks his family. “I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that my family was right. If it weren’t for their focus on education, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he says.

Read this story on the Cornell Alumni Affairs website

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		Farid Ferdows